Joanne Berger-Sweeney, a neuroscientist, became president of Trinity College in 2014, after serving as dean of Tufts University’s School of Arts and Sciences. She describes her experience as the first female and first African-American chief executive of the primarily white institution in Hartford, Conn., and explains what the college is doing to make it easier for students of all socioeconomic backgrounds to attend.
RUTH HAMMOND: Hello, I'm Ruth Hammond. Our guest today is Joanne Berger-Sweeney. She's been the president of Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut, for the past two years — a little over that. And welcome. We're glad to have you here today.
JOANNE BERGER-SWEENEY: Thank you for inviting me.
RUTH HAMMOND: Trinity College, for people who don't know about it, is a liberal-arts institution, and it's a majority white institution in a city that's minority white. In fall 2014, it had a 6-percent African-American student population, whereas the city is 38 percent African-American. So how does that disparity affect town-gown relations?
JOANNE BERGER-SWEENEY: Right, you know, it's interesting. I don't think the racial disparity affects town-gown relationships that much. I think it's a bit more socioeconomic differences because it's not just that Hartford is a primarily minority or people-of-color city, it's also that it's a relatively poor city, particularly the area that immediately surrounds Trinity College.
But I would say town-and-gown relations are really quite strong. We support a Boys and Girls Club. We support a Hartford magnet, Trinity College Academy, which is a magnet middle and high school in the area. And there, we have an information cafe where people can come and learn how to write résumés and use Excel, that our students support.
So town-gown relationships, I think, are quite strong. And when I was actually looking at statistics, I saw Trinity College spends more on town-gown relations than almost any of our peers because we are in a city.
RUTH HAMMOND: What chance is there for the people in Hartford who are low-income to ever even aspire to attend Trinity College?
JOANNE BERGER-SWEENEY: That's a great question, and there are lots of possibilities. First, Hartford Youth Scholars is a program in which middle-school kids get on the track to be in first-rate high schools and then be able to be prepared to come to places like Trinity College.
Also, Trinity College is an institution that meets full need. That means if someone applies and they need financial aid, if they are admitted to Trinity College, we assure them that we will give them financial aid to be able to attend.
So even though it may appear that our sticker price is high, it really depends on what the family's needs are, and we agree that we'll meet full need of the people that come to the college. So they can come.
RUTH HAMMOND: OK, so what are you doing to make the institution more diverse, if you feel that's a need there?
JOANNE BERGER-SWEENEY: Absolutely. So to make the institution more diverse at our student-body level, there were a couple of things we did. Last year, we became a test-optional institution, meaning that you don't have to turn in test scores in order to be considered for admissions.
And if you look at a lot of data, there's a suggestion that SAT and ACT scores correlate very highly with socioeconomic level and with a nondiverse population, in particular.
So as we remove barriers like test scores, we believe that we will allow a lot of smart kids who might not be as well prepared for SATs to come to the college.
In addition, this year, we have waived our application fee for first-generation students. So someone who is first in their family to go to college, we actually will not charge an application fee. Once again, just trying to lower the barrier to apply to Trinity, take a look at our financial aid, and then, we hope, come to the college. And we think those are two things that will improve diversity.
RUTH HAMMOND: So you're both the first female and first African-American president of Trinity, which is almost 200 years old. And I wonder if your status with these firsts is helping guide people toward being more diverse? Does it have an impact at all?
JOANNE BERGER-SWEENEY: Right. I would say the answer is yes. And I think, sometimes it makes some things easier, and sometimes it makes some things harder. My guess is it's rarely neutral, the fact that I'm the first female and the first African-American.
For some students, they will look and say, fantastic. I think I'd like to go to an institution where the person in the top position is an African-American and/or is a female. But that's not for everyone, and that's not for every alum. That's not for every faculty member.
So sometimes, I think it helps to attract really great talent because a number of people are very committed to diversity in the U.S., but not everyone. So I think for some people, it might be a bit of a discouragement.
But I hold it as a high value, diversity in higher education. I think it's a moral imperative, but I also think it's essential for us to remain relevant as the country, as a whole, has a higher percentage of people of color.
RUTH HAMMOND: So are you saying some people would feel discouraged from going to Trinity because it's led by an African-American woman?
JOANNE BERGER-SWEENEY: I believe that is true. I believe it's a relatively small population, but I do believe that there is still racism and there is still sexism in the country. So that some people, that might not be where they would want to go.
RUTH HAMMOND: And is that conveyed to you in any direct way, or indirectly through other people you work with?
JOANNE BERGER-SWEENEY: I have found the people of Trinity College to be incredibly supportive, incredibly supportive of the first African-American woman. Can I say that down to every single individual? No, I've gotten some harsh comments from people that have felt either a bit sexist or a bit racist because there still is racism in the country. So that means in every pocket you're going to find some element of it.
RUTH HAMMOND: And if the president experiences it, I imagine the students on the campus might also experience it?
JOANNE BERGER-SWEENEY: Exactly, and sometimes, when you say, is it harder or easier as an African-American to have diversity on your campus? One thing I can say is that my female and my students of color look at me and assume that I understand some of the problems that you can have with racism in the country. So I think they know and understand that there is someone who has lived that experience, and for a lot of our students that's really important.
RUTH HAMMOND: So you had a conference this month, early October, called "Setting the Tone," and you brought a lot of college presidents together, right? What were you trying to accomplish with that conference?
JOANNE BERGER-SWEENEY: Right. I thought it was really important to think about student activism, diversity and inclusion, and what we, as presidents, can do. How we can set the tone. What kinds of events, what kinds of things do we write that set a tone for inclusion and diversity and a right for students to be active politically on our campus.
And just little things. So for example, at my convocation speech, I reminded everyone of the importance of voting. That is one of the first pieces of activism that you can have in this country, and especially for 18-year-olds, when they arrive.
So we were talking about things like that. We were also talking about some of the difficulties, and I think they asked the same question within our group: As an African-American female leading a college, in a primarily white college, do you think it's easier or harder with some of the diversity issues? So we could have frank and open discussions about things like that.
One lesson that I learned is how important it is, whenever possible, to be proactive. To not just wait until the activism happens and then say, oh, what do I do about this? But in fact, lay the groundwork for diversity, inclusion, and the ability to actually share ideas together before things bubble up and become explosive.
RUTH HAMMOND: Explosive protests, right. Well, it was a pleasure having you here today, and thank you for being part of our series.
JOANNE BERGER-SWEENEY: Thank you.